There burned a pyre of memory of beloved trees, one sick but healing, others that fell through the air.
Earth sign with water rising, I tended the fire. If I were made of Kevlar, I would have climbed inside the hearth and stoked with toes and fingertips.
* * * * *
The medieval maw consumed the swamp chestnut’s branches. Before we moved to this house, the tree had been neglected for more than a decade. Its sapwood oozed and festered in the summer. Rotted pulp filled the gap of its triangular wound, the illusion of strength, the texture of sponge. I named it Stinky then for the homebrew scent of its fermented sap. In spite of its illness, slime flux mold disease, Stinky was sturdy, resilient. Its shade was nearly as valuable as its beauty, so it was spared, pruned of dead and dying branches. Twigs gathered from its canopy in the fall fueled the fire’s start. A stray leaf, large as a cow’s ear, flared red at the edges and collapsed.
That tree lives, sleeping now, its roots in the rain contained by the clay.
* * * * *
Half moons of water oak slipped under the logs. A cremation more than a year after its death. Planted for fast shade, it lived nearly 60 years. It had blocked the late afternoon sun and provided perches for birds and squirrels. Once, during our time here, it served as the nest foundation for a pair of yellow-crested night herons who chose that tree in our front yard to raise three young. By force of saw or storm, its demise was inevitable. Water oaks aren’t the sturdiest of trees. When the hurricane blew the oak down, I cheered. It reached across the street rather than the length of our house. The high outstretched branches caught the wind, and its notoriously shallow roots gave up their grip. The surprise was its inner strength—a solid ringed core, unlike most of its species of that age.
The debris crew chopped and disposed of its crown but left the remaining trunk. It wasn’t destined for a landfill or firewood. Unique in its wholeness, the water oak was placed on a flatbed truck for its next incarnation, as lumber.
* * * * *
A cylinder of sycamore scorched. Younger than the water oak, it had been planted in the back yard and pruned dramatically through its life. Its branches reach out 30 feet above the ground, spread like an umbrella. The bark peeled away and left a smooth gray skin, lovely against the leaves of its companions, stunning in the starkness of winter. Droughts made it prone to limb drop, a hazard for people, property, and power lines. With so few branches, so sporadic, it survived the hurricane but not our reluctant decision to take it down.
I witnessed its death, watched the limbs roped, cut, and lowered to the ground, felt the earth absorb its final impact. The crew obliged my wish to keep a piece of the trunk, now a place to sit near the bee-buzzed clerodendron and infant fig tree. Its limbs were chipped on site and poured out at the swamp chestnut’s roots. The straight gray cylinders of wood were intended for an art project, never made, so the idea and the branch burned.
* * * * *
The largest piece in the hearth was the split beech branch, wide as my waist, its water-rotted center black and gnarled. Mourning accompanied its memory.
I didn’t know its name until it was dead. When it fell, not long after the water oak collapsed, I felt the entire foundation of our house rumble. Right then, I didn’t know which tree had fallen. The storm passed, and I walked outside to see the damage. Oh, no.
The neighbor’s 100 foot tree, likely as tall as its age, cracked at its base, crushed 40 feet of our fence, and missed her house by 15. The sky was a cloudy wound where its canopy had been. The gap promised a long ache. A certain dead branch no longer held out its knuckle for the Mississippi kites who visited each spring and called peep-PEEP-peep-peep-peep to their flock overhead.
I touched the dying leaves, the pods. So early in the year, the seeds might be acceptable for food but they would be too immature to sprout new saplings. I took a small branch to identify what it was. A few website visits later, I learned it was a beech, a great source of nuts for wildlife.
When we stepped around the fallen tree, we startled a young orphaned squirrel. The hole in a huge branch faced the sky as it fell, taking the little one down with it. Frightened, Peek-a-boo cowered in its den for two days until we watched it venture further down the beech’s trunk and off into the shrubs. With so many trees dead or stripped of their nuts, we wondered if it would find enough to eat.
The shrubs hid the hole where the tree’s life had been. If the termites had left the beech alone, and no hurricane had hit, it may have lived another 50 to 100 years. When a native plant expert visited to give us advice on what to plant in our yard, he informed us that beeches were rare in urban forests. He smiled when he realized we were in a tiny, accidentally intact bottomland, the canopy of trees within view suggestive of what had been before houses and roads claimed the ground. Sixty years earlier, the original builder of our house and those of our adjacent neighbors had left some of the land as it was.
* * * * *
I stared into the rainbow of flame, absent green. Where was that color in the wood-fueled fire? I’d never seen it, I realized. What if green was the color of their souls, already gone?
The fire whistled, the pitch rising with the heat. A pocket of moisture or a channel of air—weeeeEEE—a conversation of the elements right there with my ears dumb yet aware something was said.
Heat seared my bone marrow. I thought of water, what it drowns, washes, attempts to clean. Water softens. Water works a patient course. Traditions hold that one can purify with ritual bath, baptism, and holy font, but the ancients knew fire had the most power.
In alchemy, fire is the element of change and purification. It burns to yield essence. My back to the dying flames, I felt hard, tempered, strong as a tree.
My eyes closed as the embers expired, its death rattle soft, a wooden chime whisper. Then a clatter to ash.